Dec. 5, 2013
Auburn junior offensive guard Chad Slade has a championship on his mind (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - Junior Auburn offensive guard Chad Slade wore a Superman t-shirt under his jersey when the Tigers played Alabama on Saturday. And as Auburn players celebrated their 34-28 victory at Jordan-Hare, he thought about the little boy whose courage had so inspired him.
Slade met 6-year-old Thomas Sullivan, affectionately called Superman, during Auburn's bye week last season. He'd gone home to Moody and had gone to Ashville to watch his former high school team play. That's when he was introduced to Thomas, an Auburn fan who was battling brain cancer.
Over the months that followed, Slade became a regular part of the lives of Thomas and his parents, Heather Lambert and Tommy Sullivan. He got Auburn offensive linemen to wear wristbands in Tommy's honor.
On May 26, Thomas died in his mother arms. Slade says he still felt his presence on the most glorious night of his athletic career. When the game was over, he sent a text message to Thomas' mother.
"I told her I had that on under my jersey," Slade says. "I told her he was there Saturday night. I know he was smiling down on us. I know we made him happy. He has been with us the whole season.
Slade says he'll feel Thomas' presence again when No. 3 Auburn (11-1), a year after staggering to a 3-9 record, plays No. 5 Missouri (11-1) play Saturday in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game at the Georgia Dome.
A mountain of a man at 6-foot-6 and 313 pounds, Slade is soft-spoken off the field. His compassionate ways belie the violent and tough game he loves. So it has always been, says his mother, Nikki Shorter.
"When he first met Thomas I could see in his face how he just really took to him," Mrs. Shorter says. "I talk to him about God and the Bible all the time. We never turn our back on anybody, no matter what they are going through. I said `what you are doing is awesome.'
"I was so proud of him. I'm just glad he is the way he is. He has always been kind of quiet and had that big heart, but really tough on side. You see this big kid come up with glasses on. He cares about everybody, but he's very tough."
Toughness is a requirement to play for Auburn offensive line coach J.B. Grimes. And that toughness has helped Auburn's offensive line pave the way for the SEC's top running game. Against Alabama, the Tigers ran for 297 yards against Alabama's supposedly run-proof defense.
"Nobody thought we could do that," Slade says. "We did. We have great confidence. We knew they were saying they had the No. 1 rush defense and all that. We took that as a challenge. We had to let people in the nation know that this is Auburn team is not like last year. It's not luck we are running for 300 yards on all these teams."
Slade, in his third season as an Auburn starter, isn't always appreciated back in his hometown.
"My whole hometown is basically all Alabama fans," Slade says. "There are a few Auburn fans, and I have some Alabama fans that support me. Then I have some Alabama fans will put on Twitter that I hope Mizzou beats Auburn or stuff like that. I don't let it bother me. I let them say what they have to say. I'm just going to do my best for the people that support me."
Nikki and Joseph Shorter were back home in Moody on Sunday and back at work Monday, Nikki at Al Tech Industries.
"We really get a hard time," Mrs. Shorter says. "My husband is the only Auburn fan in the whole job. He took his shaker to work with him. It's been great. It's been really quiet for me the last couple of days. Nobody is talking much. I have this big smile on my face every time I walk around."
After Chris Davis had returned a missed field goal 109 yards after time expired, after the fans had swarmed the field, after a celebration to remember always in the Auburn locker room, it was time to look to another game and chance to win a championship.
"I've never experienced a championship," Slade says. "I love Moody, but we never got close to a championship. That feeling of seeing everybody storming the field and you just beat the No. 1 team in the nation was unbelievable."
Slade says concerns about whether Auburn players can come back from the emotions of last Saturday and be ready to fight again are misplaced. He says he and his teammates will be ready because the challenge is too difficult for it to be any other way.
"It's going to be a great challenge for our offensive line and our whole team," Slade says. "It's going to be the same type of game, the same type of atmosphere as the last game. We're going to have to out-physical them. They are very good. They are very talented, and they know how to get after people."
It will be another stop on a journey that started last December after Gus Malzahn took over as head coach. Soon, J.B. Grimes came to coach the offensive line.
"Oh, he's been very important," Slade says. "Coach Grimes is the greatest coach I've ever been around. He's a great teacher. The first thing that came out of his mouth was that, if we bought into what he said, we'd be a great offensive line. We bought into it.
"Coach Grimes is a great person to be around. We'll go visit with him and he'll joke around with him. When you are in a bad mood, he'll put you in a good mood. He's an energetic person."
On the field, Grimes is a no-nonsense drill sergeant.
"He's a little different, all right," Slade says with a laugh. "He's serious then. He's real serious."
Last Saturday, Slade's mother was there during Tiger Walk to give him a hug and offer him words of encouragement. She's always there, but this time the tears were flowing.
"I was really emotional," Mrs. Shorter says. "I knew how much they wanted it and how hard they had worked for it. He hugged me, and I started crying. I felt so emotional for them. It was an exciting thing when they won. I was elated for them. I think the whole thing is a blessing."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: